Thursday, July 9, 2009
by Michael Washburn
Funny how the past answers the present. So Gordon Lowe thought when recalling the events of one November that threw his life into chaos. At the time, he found himself drawn to reassuring events and faces that he knew from hunting for so many years, loving the aroma of steaming coffee in the stark morning and the sounds from a 12-gauge shotgun as its owner loaded and cocked the weapon. It would be trite to compare the land lying before Gordon and his party on a bright November day to the contours of a woman they had not seen in months, but when they set out in their hot orange vests, Gordon thought Here is my love. Here was the ineffable thrill of a primal act. Gordon scanned the hills where the snow lay on branches and crests like the dust of a volcano whose source was heaven rather than hell. If anyone in this party knew the area around Eau Claire, it was Gordon Lowe, whose father had taken him out here from the age of seven and had shown him how to spot fresh sign and go from there.
The party marched for 30 minutes without passing another hunter, silence greeting their eyes’ appeals to the bright day. Gordon was not crazy about going out with the Higgins brothers, Ed and Steve, he thought they lacked discipline and weren’t too smart or interesting, but he was glad to be in the company of Bob Wright, a hunter with an internal compass who could tell a wolf from a semi-domestic cur that had split away from another party. In recent weeks, hunters had come to blows or worse over mistakes about such matters. The others in the party were Carl Sievert and his girlfriend, Cheryl Gorman, neither of whom Gordon knew. Steve had invited them without clearing it with anybody.
When they got about half a mile beyond the Mills farm at the outskirts of Norristown, Bob halted at the sight of a checkered shape teasing the fringes of the white bushes 30 yards ahead. The trees were sparse in this area, unlikely to block your line of sight when you spotted a deer, and the shape on the fringes of the bush seemed unable to decide whether to hide deeper or take flight. The Higgins brothers swung into action, moving up the pass to where the form lurked, but then it was gone, leaving the brothers staring vapidly at the reaches before them, looking to Gordon and Bob like a pair of dolts. When the rest of the party caught up, Bob muttered about not shooting at the first thing you saw, which at this remove could be a pregnant woman or the local sheriff. But the brothers did not want to pause, after all the trouble to come here. They pressed ahead, Cheryl blurting something about the loss of surprise, as if this truck-stop princess knew a thing about hunting.
Bob’s breath billowed out like the distilled fear of a man who had meditated the cold reaches for years and dreaded their secrets, even as the land made him complete. They trekked on until the trees, heavy with three days of snow, began to thin out a bit more, and happened again upon the mysterious other, and now there was no subterfuge. The Hmong man stood 30 yards from the party, his eyes making a reproach, and for a moment no one in the party could speak.
Then Ed Higgins strode up and faced the man, his looming figure a contrast to the other’s physique, snarling about territory and rights and how this “dumb fuck” probably scared off all the deer in a three-mile radius, and Steve and Carl were starting to catch up when the Hmong turned and vanished into the trees again. To his astonishment, Gordon heard the Higgins brothers, then Carl and Cheryl, calling after the frightened man, “Chink!” “Get the fuck out of here!” Gordon wondered if the epithet applied to somebody from Laos, or wherever it was, but said nothing. When he and Bob caught up, Bob scolded the others, telling them they sounded like low-class bigots who couldn’t pass the special-ed classes his wife taught. They ignored him and kept calling into the silent woods.
Steve muttered something about how we should have dropped a lot more napalm on those damn gooks, and Bob’s look to Gordon said God, this guy’s a moron, and then the party marched on some more and emerged into a clearing where the caws of a raven broke the hush at intervals. In the center of the clearing, they gathered over the remains of a fire sending up the wispiest black column, the smoke losing its form to the wind and reforming and vanishing again, and Gordon felt that the cawing raven mocked the party, not caring to differentiate him or Bob from the others.
What am I doing here?
Carl kicked snow onto the remains while the Higgins brothers scanned the silent trees and Cheryl strained Gordon’s credulity again with a crack about Orientals and rice.
“What’s that there?” asked Bob with a gesture at a black object in the snow a few yards from the fire. Gordon approached it.
Before Carl had fully stood up, his left ear was gone and red spray was all over the snow and Cheryl’s face and neck, her grin lingering for just a moment before her brain started to catch up.
More blasts came from the trees, shearing away part of Ed’s face and punching two holes in Steve, who dropped as if his bones had turned to liquid. Amazingly, Carl still stood there with his ear gone and the snow around him turning to mulch while Ed staggered and collapsed, Cheryl erupted in screams, and Bob and Gordon began to unsling their rifles as more rounds from the automatic weapon whizzed past. Bob got off a shot before a round caught him in the chest and killed him, and Cheryl kept screaming as bullets tore into her abdomen and Gordon’s right hip. The shooter was adjusting his aim. Gordon had just turned and started to lurch away when a round caught him from behind and dropped him, and the snow he collapsed into as everything went black was like the first taste of a dark Norse realm of the dead.
Jake’s was not the kind of bar Gordon’s father had told him about, where you had to go out of your way to be polite to the other fellows. Most people here were less interested in proving their manhood than in obliterating memories, and half of the patrons were broads anyway. Not quite a year after the incident, Gordon sat in the dark place nursing a Coors when the pretty brunette on the cusp of 30 made her appearance and sat two stools down from the hunter. Noting the absence of a ring on her left hand, Gordon fumbled for a way to break the silence, unsure if her half-glances his way reflected an attitude like his, or something close to terror. It could well have been the latter, Gordon reflected, thinking of the last two women he’d breathed on in this place. But it was early now, he was only on his second Coors. Maybe she was on the make, or maybe she was just a patron who preferred the dubious comforts of the bar to the cutting winds outside.
“Do I remember you from—”
“No,” she snapped. “I was never there.”
Gordon turned away and stared at his beer before noticing from the corner of his eye that the woman was grinning. He turned to her again.
“You’re Gordon, right?” the woman asked.
“Yes, how’d you guess that?”
“I was here with a friend last week, and she pointed you out.”
“Yeah, I’m a real fixture here,” Gordon muttered.
“You kind of remind me of Nick Nolte,” the woman said.
“What’s your name?”
“Rachel, do you know the town real well? Something tells me you’re new here.”
“I know it as well as anybody. Do you know the community college?”
“Yes, Bob’s wife—I mean my friend Bob, who’s deceased—his wife teaches special ed classes there.”
“I’m taking an English class there right now. Did you know there’ve been important writers from Wisconsin? Hamlin Garland is the one we’re into now.”
“A local guy?”
“Uh-huh. He wrote a story about a vacationing white-collar couple from Chicago who look down on the country folk, regard them as a bunch of dumb slobs. Then when the husband gets sick, it’s a local man who applies a home cure and permanently changes the way the city folk think.”
She was talking so far down to him, her words fell like lead. Gordon’s reading was limited, to say the least, and his sage look didn’t fool anyone for a second.
“Then there’s a story about some Union soldiers who come home to a dark and empty train station around here. It’s sad because they fought heroically and then it turns out they don’t have a place that respects them.”
It was as if she were explaining the story to a child. Gordon wrestled with his humiliation and groped for words until a hand fell on his shoulder. It was Paul Dietz, a 50-year-old with thinning blond hair who had hunted with Gordon, sipping whiskey from a flask to displace the “old sauce” in his system and keep his hangover at bay. Gordon had tried the cure once and it hadn’t worked, but it seemed to do fine for Paul.
“Hey, Paul. Rachel here is telling me about Gamlin Harland.”
The woman winced.
“How about Garrison Keillor, ever listen to him?” Gordon asked Rachel, in the hope of promoting a three-way exchange.
But then Paul breathed on Gordon and said the word ragnarok.
“What we talked about the last time out, Gordon. Did you tell Rachel about it?”
He felt Paul’s foul breath at the base of his neck.
“It’s just as well,” Paul said and shambled off again.
How Gordon longed to engage with Rachel, to see what was on the far side of the bemusement she showed here and learn about the memories and associations to which she retreated when alone, but he had so little idea of how to talk to her.
“So how’d you meet this Harland guy?” he fumbled.
“Garland—I, ah —he’s been dead for a long time, Gordon.”
“Oh, o.k. Like Shakespeare.”
“Ah, not that long. What was this mysterious friend of yours saying about, uh, ragnarok?”
“Oh, that’s just a lot of superstition, this old Norwegian guy doesn’t –”
“Never mind,” said Rachel. “He seems to have a sense of place. Do you feel a connection to this town?”
“I guess so. My ma wanted me to grow up smart, she read to me sometimes, but Paul and some of these other guys told me that the authentic life is lived here, not in Chicago or New York. I like what I do well enough.”
“And what’s that?”
“I’m, ah—I’m the head of a road crew, and I do some carpentry on the side.”
“Do you think Paul feels more rooted because of the Norwegian community?”
“I don’t know. He may feel pride in all of that, but racially he’s like me—some of my remote ancestors were Vikings,” Gordon stumbled, thinking this might be outside the scope of Rachel’s question.
“How’s your dad?”
“He’s no longer with us.”
“How’ve you been since that business last winter, anyway?” Rachel prodded.
“If you want to come with me to a quieter place, I’ll be happy to tell you,” Gordon replied.
That was when Rachel, with a few curt words, got up and walked out of Jake’s, having made Gordon aware that she was friends with Anne Nielsen, and that Anne had let her in on the details of her encounter with Gordon one weekend a few months ago, when the flaring pain in his spine made Gordon unable to stay in any position from which he could have satisfied Anne. Gordon had collapsed in agony, writhing, flailing, gasping that he thought they’d fixed this and he needed the vial in his coat, and the woman started to cry and cover her breasts and recoil from his fury and shame.
Hungover again. Against his better judgment, Gordon had accepted the invitation from Bob’s widow Sarah to accompany her and eight-year-old Nathan Wright to a diner in the mid-morning. The ringing in Gordon’s ears worsened as he pulled out of his driveway and turned onto a street toward the freeway leading to the heart of Eau Claire. Some 20 minutes later, he passed the recreation center and the church sign saying, “You are not lost,” and then he was driving through an immaculate residential area, passing a corner with tracks where teens on bikes had taken a shortcut and another yard where neatly clipped hedges formed the parameters of a manic Border Collie’s existence. Five minutes later, Gordon pulled into the driveway of the diner, strode inside and sat down across from Sarah and Nathan, who greeted him like one of his superheroes come to life. Gordon had wiled away hours with this beaming kid, bought him fries and milkshakes and talked about how Bob Wright’s insistence on throwing himself into the line of fire and shooting ten rounds at the attacker had saved Gordon’s life. The papers had it wrong, he told the kid.
“Mom got me an awesome birthday present,” Nathan remarked after the three had ordered.
“Was it an inflatable rocking horse?” asked Gordon with a wink at Sarah. The boy nodded. Sarah talked about her AA meetings, the use of acronyms and figures of speech keeping the exchange well over the boy’s head, or so the adults believed.
That was when Don Miers and his entourage strolled into the diner and shifted everyone’s attention.
“Hey everybody, don’t forget to get out there and vote on November 6,” Don told the customers before starting a tour of all the tables.
“Oh, God. Bob couldn’t stand this guy,” Sarah whispered to Gordon, as Nathan looked out eagerly at the man who yearned for a seat in Congress.
“We’ve got the best factories and the best jobs. Don’t you even think about moving . . . ” came Don’s suave and soothing voice from across the diner.
“Did Bob ever see him in person?” asked Gordon.
“No, just on TV, in a few debates and commercials when Don ran for the state assembly, and Bob still couldn’t stomach him,” Sarah replied.
A few tables away, the banter continued.
“ . . . the cheese capital of the world, the place where folks in Tokyo and London send their bulk orders . . .”
Sarah filled Gordon in on how the candidate had flip-flopped. She traced Don’s arc from an untouchable during the days he sat on the factory’s board to a politician the working fellow could sit down and have a beer with any time.
“ . . . now’s the moment to be more than a provincial city, to be one of the manufacturing powerhouses of the world, and we know the talent and energy are there, we just need to make our voice heard where it counts . . .”
Sarah leaned forward and whispered as the candidate drew ever nearer.
“My friend Sue Lundgren was on the board of the C-Factory and she said no one dared stand up to this guy.”
“He doesn’t look like much,” Gordon said drily, his hip starting to flare up again. Nathan had not taken his eyes off the candidate since his appearance.
“ . . . that’s right, Mr. Hamsun, we’re going to get some bills passed and then we’ll rise to global prominence . . .”
In a moment, Don Miers stood before the widow, the boy, and the haggard man who would not have looked too out of place in a shelter for the homeless, and Gordon thought he saw a puzzled look flash across the politician’s visage.
“Well, hello there, son,” he beamed at Nathan.
“Do you think you might want to enter politics some day?” Don asked.
Nathan smiled blankly.
“We might be able to use your help in Washington,” Don said. “This is the greatest country in the world, son, but if we’re going to keep it great, we need some changes in the capital and right here in Eau Claire.”
“What sort of changes?” asked Nathan, brightening, as Gordon and Sarah looked on with apprehension.
“There are factories around here that can’t stay solvent, they’re sick of having it out with the unions and they’re thinking of heading south, and they can’t get the help they need—while at the same time, we’ve got workers here who can’t become citizens and work legally, and can’t get the right benefits and schooling for their kids,” replied Don, not talking down to the kid too much because the harangue was for others too, it was a moment to preen and pose.
Nathan did not take time to process any of this, but came right back with another question.
“Why should we care about this?”
“Because we want America to survive and be strong in the global economy,” said Don immediately.
“Who are these people you want to help become citizens?”
“You know, the Asians, the Hmong.”
“If we’re so great, why do we need them?”
“Look, we need to help them become part of America,” said Don, a bit put off by the boy’s tenacity.
“You say you want it to survive and you say you want to replace it with something else.”
“No, I want to hold onto the ability to assimilate—to add people from another culture,” Don retorted.
Then Gordon broke in: “I think the kid’s saying it’s sort of a paradox to maintain a structure through fluidity, or something.”
“Have you got a better idea, friend?” asked Don, his tone shifting ever so slightly.
“No, can’t say as I do,” Gordon muttered. “I just can’t get around the paradox here.”
Then Don moved his face closer to Gordon’s and lowered his tone several notches.
“Well, Mr. Lowe, maybe if you get clean some day, we’ll sit down and I’ll impart some freshman economics,” he said with a look that some people might reserve for a child molester.
The use of Gordon’s name surprised him, he didn’t recall any introduction to the candidate, but then he thought of who he had been for three months last winter, the homegrown celebrity, before his belly started to bloat and his speech began to slur and they took him off the air. Now he was Gordon Lowe, the loser almost everyone gave a wide berth. He leaned forward and began telling Nathan a joke that the boy had heard three times before.
During the 11 weeks of Khamtay Vang’s trial, the immigrant’s lawyers dwelled on the slurs and taunts thrown at him by members of Gordon’s party, on the definition of fighting words, and on the manner in which the hunters bore their weapons when in contact with the defendant. In the opening weeks, they put forth a conventional, not to say predictable, defense without any effort to explore racial or personal history and memory. Most of the time, the defendant lounged in his seat in a borrowed tweed jacket with patches at the elbows, offering a blank look and a nod now and then to his attorney Bruce Penn, and declined to cast a glance at the families of the four men and woman he’d killed, a failure that enraged the relatives to no end, as if his attitude suggested that this was like paying a ticket, and the thing was just to do it and go home.
Even eight weeks into the trial, attempts by the defense to provide context or background consisted of asking the jury to imagine scenes in which others had mocked Vang and his grasp of English, and they even brought up a case in which a Mendota Indian killed a man outside a bar in Whitewater after suffering taunts, and had the charge knocked back to second-degree manslaughter.
Journalists who swarmed to the courthouse in Eau Claire were eager for a spin to put on the tale, yet even though they all mentioned that Vang was from Laos, they showed little interest in probing his life before Wisconsin. Khamtay meditated on it minute after minute, hour after hour, recalling events in reverse, like a film rewinding, carrying him back to a dirty tenement in California, then to a camp on a disused Guam runway, then to an even more squalid camp in Indonesia, and finally to a village in the Central Highlands of Laos. When he dreamed, the time and place were a fluid zone where you could traverse realities that asserted their permanence even as they reacted to you, like clay that lost and regained its solidity in response to a child’s gropes. Here was terror, swallowing the settings that he and his brothers and sisters shared and breathed—the hut made from rice stalks that they shared after fleeing the village of Nouri, his smaller brother and sister clinging to him as if they feared stopping lest tubers should grow out of their legs and bind them to the shifting strata of mud and rock until the soldiers came to kill or capture the children, and the camps, the alluvial pits and crevices where they’d crouched and kept their heads low.
They fought through the vines and pits and steered clear of the traps that rebels had set for the soldiers, and that Khamtay had learned to detect by the compacted topsoil marked with an odd crest, hoisting his smaller brother and sister in each arm as he sidestepped a trap and calling out to his older siblings to beware. At points in the depths of the jungle, the aftermath of a trap attested to the carelessness of a soldier or another villager in too much of a hurry, never someone Khamtay knew, but someone whose story unfolded like the guts sprawling over the mud under the look of shock directed at the trees or the sky. Khamtay knew all these victims had taken flight for the same reason, and in cases, he could guess their destination. They come so far before that misstep.
The siblings hoped to meet up with their mother, who had talked with them once about what to do in the event that the family split up, though they had no idea where she had been in the last month. As for their father, they believed him to be in one of the camps run by the regime.
They came to the base of a curving mango tree, where Khamtay deposited his tiny siblings and his older brother and sister set off to find dinner and maybe a source of water. After they had rested a while, Khamtay edged to the top of the tree and began to grope at the fruit when a blast and then a scream tore through the moist air and he almost tumbled out of his perch. He climbed back to the mud and dashed through the bush to where his older sister stood over his older brother, who clutched a sharpened pole in his right hand, a pool spreading from a hole in his torso, and then Khamtay’s eyes alighted on the two soldiers clutching AK-47s and probing the grounds for resisters, and suddenly a third soldier ran to Khamtay’s sister and began to tear off the sheet covering her ripe breasts, and then he was groping her and her screams pursued Khamtay as he fled back to his tiny sister and brother. He snagged one of them on each arm and charged off to the south, and within seconds bullets made trunks explode and splinters cut Khamtay’s face as both the children wailed.
He kept running as bullets tore up the earth and he noticed that both children had lost control of their bowels. Just as they approached the next rise, where they would enter a canopy of banana leaves and bushes and would escape through the riot of green and brown growth, Khamtay realized that his three-year-old brother was no longer clinging to his waist, but he could not slow down. In another 30 seconds, he was crouching with his sister and cupping his hand over her mouth as she sweated and sobbed in the muggy air of the canopy and soldiers passed over a ridge, scanning the green with fingers on their triggers.
When it was time to move again, Khamtay’s sister wanted to know why the soldiers hated them, and all he could tell her was that they belonged to a tribe whose leaders had helped the CIA, not that she could understand that term or even find America on a map. They ran some more through the heat and mud and the branches that curved and turned back on themselves, sweat pouring over Khamtay’s torso and forehead, and he brushed his locks from his eyes and tried not to think of his siblings who had died, but he felt the day in its totality as the enactment of a prophecy spoken by ancestors who were one with the earth. Finally they came to a village where an ancient man sat before a steaming pot and children ran in a circle between the huts made from rice stalks, before one of which a group of middle-aged men stood overseeing the place of refuge in silence. Here was not the tumult that Khamtay expected after so many signs over the past three days of an exodus from the areas controlled by the regime.
Khamtay set his sister down and walked up to one of the men standing outside the hut two doors down from the wizened man and the steaming pot. He questioned the fellow, who seemed too sophisticated to have been a farmer before coming here, and indeed, it turned out that the man had been a journalist. The man described how the soldiers had fanned out over the hills and the jungle and closed around the refugees in a pincer squeezing out torrents of blood, the mud taking on almost the appearance of magma as it seeped down the hills and ravines and joined the rivers whose source lay in the mountains lining the border with Vietnam. If you study the rivers, you will see the remnants of the hunted.
The idea was to regroup here, and to form a polity that could make demands on the regime in Vientiane peacefully, without doing anything to justify charges of rabble-rousing.
Khamtay let his sister run with the other children and explored the village a bit. In one of the huts, a group of men played poker, scarcely glancing at the intruder, who noticed weapons propped against one wall and guessed that the men had prized them from the corpses of soldiers who had wandered into a trap somewhere. The men here radiated malevolence, as if they were trying to channel their fury into the card game. Khamtay tried to converse with them and asked for a sip from the flask on the table, but they snapped that he was not entitled to the perks of those who had given their all in battle, and as he wandered out of the hut, he thought he heard one of them mention an American officer’s name, but then he could have been mistaken. In the next hut, a man in shock, with suppurating holes on his face, sat on a stool and gazed at the floor, taking even less notice of Khamtay than the fighters had.
When he wandered back outside, Khamtay’s sister was frolicking in the mud with the other kids while the men discussed the locations of mines in the vicinity of the village and an incident in which a stag blew itself to atoms.
Khamtay’s curiosity got the better of him again, and he vanished into the next hut as the voices of the children pursued each other in circles inside his psyche, but now he had made a mistake that could cost him his life. He had strode into the hut of one of the senior warriors of the tribe just as the man was entering the body of a lithe woman, on the first bed that Khamtay had seen in weeks, but the threat never materialized because when he turned and fled back outside, a blinding orange flash in the center of the village accompanied wails and a tableau of blood and flying limbs that slapped into Khamtay’s face and arms and drove him screaming once again into the hills.
Gordon was sick of Jake’s, and hadn’t gotten much of a return on the time and money invested there, so the day after Don Miers’s victory in the Congressional race, he set out for a lounge on the other side of Eau Claire, in the area where the white-collar burbs spilled over into a domain of trappers and hunters and men who could point out the moonshine distilleries in the forgotten corners of the woods. He pulled up on the dirt road and parked between a rusty ochre flat-bed pickup and a dirty blue 1983 Sedan and sauntered into Norton’s Lounge, where men sipped spirits and mulled over the election and the future of the town their ancestors had started to settle as loggers or fishermen exploring in search of a ford over the Eau Claire River. Gordon bought a Coors and sat at one of the tables flanked by a fireplace and a wall adorned with photos of hunters. When he reached the bottom of his second Coors, Ned Olsen, a ruddy farmer in soiled overalls and with a face like cracked clay, came over and sat down close enough for Gordon to smell the whiskey on his breath.
“’Been following the trial,” Ned remarked.
Gordon nodded and tried to think of a way to dismiss the farmer and avoid talking about the trial, of all the things in the world. But the farmer went on:
“They was already saying they had a strong case to acquit the guy or at least reduce the charges, but now they’ve changed tack. Penn’s looking at what might’ve triggered a psychotic episode, and the reporters asked what could excuse shooting people. He wouldn’t comment. I think he wanted to say that this Vang character shouldn’t have been walking around free if he was so tightly wound.”
Gordon mumbled evasions until Ned sensed that he had come here to avoid talking about the trial, and sauntered back to the bar, where he began doing shots of Jack Daniels with a guy with matted black hair under a worn Brewers cap. Gordon drank some more beer and then switched to whiskey and the people and chatter started to blur and spin around him, cocooning him in a soft warm space and letting the outlines of his ordeal dissolve at last as memories insinuated themselves, thoughts of Sarah, of Nathan on his rocking horse in a lonely house, of the man Nathan would grow into, turning out better and stronger than the alcoholic who had presumed to offer him tutelage after Bob’s death, and thoughts, finally, of the absent woman in Gordon’s life, the presence that would never assume real features and voice and breath if his life continued in its arc, yet he assigned and refined its features as if it were a portrait crafted over months and years.
After he started on his third whiskey, he noticed a new presence at his table.
“Who are we in the celestial scheme?” the man asked.
He was about 38, with trim light brown hair and a dour look like a doctor explaining a painful but necessary procedure, and his gray flannel shirt was suitable for loading logs on and off a flat bed, or maybe for driving a lift at the Gustaf yards a mile from here. Yet he seemed educated. Gordon studied the man with curiosity.
“You must have heard about the Iraq veteran who did in his parents,” the man continued. “Just five weeks after coming home, he nails them by the hands and feet to a shed, pours gas on it, and sets it on fire. Says that he couldn’t stand to hear their voices one more time. I hear he was distraught because—get this—because the city council wouldn’t vote to fund a new memorial to the local dead.”
Gordon had heard of no such incident.
“Who are we, if the bonds unravel?” the man mused. “I was out in the woods beyond Sutter’s Point the other day and the trees and the wind whispered threats at me—and I knew something was terribly off, and then the cry came and I saw it was a gut-shot wolf, but it was so bloodshot and nasty like its look reproached me just for looking at its hurt—just for the possibility of any thought that could have comforted me, though I had no such thought—and I turned and ran through the howling gusts and I knew it was the approach of end times.”
Throughout this harangue, the man didn’t take his eyes off Gordon.
“There just isn’t any agreement among the polities that dwell here, between their lords and ours, and the curs and wolves are so crazy and bloodshot because food is stretched so thin, there isn’t enough to feed even a fifth of the whole state now, at the end. The fall. Ragnarok.”
Then Norm Gunderson burst into the lounge, shouting about trouble afoot in Ward’s Corner, where someone had spotted Steve Gorman menacing people, about half a mile away. Ignoring the bartender’s advice, Gordon rose and followed Norm, Ned, and the guy in the Brewers cap outside, and they climbed into the bed of Tom Sievert’s pickup, and then they were shooting through the night on a back road where the wind stirred flurries of snow from the random rises until they reached Ward’s Corner and turned left onto a road that took them to a modest two-story house where at first nothing seemed to be wrong. Then they climbed out of the pickup and saw Steve Gorman, Cheryl’s brother, standing outside in a brown leather jacket and jeans, looking like a cut-rate Kevin Bacon stand-in, displaying the grin that Gordon saw on Cheryl’s face the day she died.
They passed Steve without a word and stepped into the dark house, drawn by the chatter from a television in one of the chambers, and then they turned into the living room where the Hmong family sat as if paralyzed on the couch, and then Paul Dietz raised his .45 and shot all four intruders, blowing a chunk out of Gordon’s torso and making him slam backwards into Ned before he crashed to the polished wood floor.
None of the four was dead yet. Gordon panted and held his side in agony as Paul dragged each of them to the far wall and propped them into a sitting position. Gordon spoke as if each breath cost a piece of his innards.
“Paul, did Steve put you up to this?”
“It’s end times, my man,” Paul hissed. “We can’t be any greater than they if the seas roil endlessly. The Laotian sea and the American sea. Look at that face, it’s a damned insolent face, tell me he’s not pleased to see me like this, sweating my own brains out,” said Paul with a gesture at the male Laotian teenager squeezed between his mother and father on the couch. Gordon thought of Tom Sievert outside in the pickup, unarmed and probably petrified by the shots.
“I’d like to tear that insolent Laotian face clean off and feed it to the curs,” Paul added.
“Paul. You. Shot. Me. I’m going to die.”
“The world’s coming apart like a composite man whose parts don’t fit together, Gordon. What did we talk about, the phrase that echoes through centuries.”
The three who had entered with Gordon bled and groaned, and Ned was holding a piece of his gut in his hand and looking at it in horror.
“You!” Paul hissed now at the Hmong mother, who sat blanched with terror at the end of the couch, “you brought this progeny, this filth into our world and you ran the seas together like a slut that wanted the semen of all the gutter races to mingle freely with the good semen. You!”
He approached the woman and tore at her face with his nails and trailed the barrel of the pistol across her nipples and cheeks and mouth before hitting her in the face with the butt of the gun, dislodging teeth and knocking the woman back, without altering her strange submissive manner. Then Paul turned to the husband and shot him cleanly through the forehead.
Gordon reached into his sock and pulled out the knife that he had taken from Khamtay Vang’s makeshift camp just over a year before, stretched forward and plunged it into Paul’s foot, and the giant toppled screaming like a collapsing tyrannosaurus. Gordon pulled the knife and stabbed Paul repeatedly in the leg, stomach, shoulder, face, and head until he knew he had effaced the giant’s capacity for violence. Then he dropped the bloody knife and rose, slowly and in agony, walked to the phone, dialed, and breathed phrases into the receiver. He dropped the phone on the floor and tried to help the Hmong mother up off the couch, and she spat blood and wobbled and breathed thanks to Gordon for the deference that a proper guest must show. Then slowly as ever, blood coursing down his side and onto the polished floor, he lurched to the children on the couch and started to help them up.